16 Best Destinations for a Classic Southern Christmas

Christmas Tree
Photo: joe daniel price/Getty Images

The best Christmas vacations can be found right here in the South. Forgo the big presents this year, and plan a family trip instead. The memories made are the gifts that keep on giving. Every year, you'll be able to look back on photos and reminisce on the quality time you spent together. Whether you set your sights on a big city or small town, there's a Southern destination that will love welcoming you for the holidays. From impressive light displays and tree decorating to visits with Santa, festive train rides, and lively all-day parades, the South has more than its fair share of holiday cheer. Celebrate a Southern Christmas somewhere familiar like San Antonio, Orlando, or Washington, D.C., or go a little off-the-beaten-path to smaller destinations like Dahlonega or Leesburg. No matter where you decide to spend the season, you'll get to explore a new place in the glow of holiday lights with heartwarming traditions aplenty.

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Dahlonega, Georgia

Dahlonega General Store Decorated for Christmas
Robbie Caponetto

Very few places do a Southern small-town Christmas as well as Dahlonega, Georgia, which is one of the South's favorite holiday towns. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque small town at Christmastime. Dahlonega combines small-town charm with a Christmas spirit and flare that will have you feeling like you're on the inside of a snowglobe. The town in North Georgia is decked out in glittering lights and thronged with rambling horse-drawn carriages as Southerners flock from far and wide to see this sight during the Christmas season. Its Old-Fashioned Christmas festival lasts all month long and includes everything from a Christmas parade to a lovely tree lighting ceremony. Dahlonega also is surrounded by wineries that make the perfect day destination for seasonal sipping. If you aren't looking to leave the quaint downtown, there are also a bevy of tasting rooms scattered around the town square. You can sip and shop at a varied collection of local shops and boutiques that are ideal for finding a unique Christmas gift for everyone on your list!

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San Antonio, Texas

Southern Christmas Vacations: San Antonio River Walk
Photo Courtesy of San Antonio CVB

San Antonio's most famous attraction, the San Antonio River Walk, really shines during the holidays, with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights hung in the trees. Start your Christmas vacation off right with Ford Holiday Boat Caroling, which takes place from December 1-23. While drifting down the magnificently lit River Walk, floating carolers serenade revelers with holiday favorites. There's no better way spend your Christmas vacation than by roaming the River Walk alongside canopies of colorful Christmas lights. It's a must-see area in a city packed with festivities. In addition to all of this holiday splendor, there is also the San Antonio Botanical Garden's seasonal Holidays in Bloom show, which is packed with garland, poinsettias, and ribbons galore that will delight your senses. Then there is the Pearl's holiday night market, which is held at a former brewery constructed in 1883. If you want even more Christmas festivities to attend, there is the Ford Fiesta de Las Luminarias, a unique and culturally rich Mexican Christmas event.

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Dallas, Texas

Christmas Tree
joe daniel price/Getty Images

Whether you are in search of a fairytale Christmas celebration or you are looking to find a place to defrost from the cold December chill, Dallas is one of the best places to spend the holiday season. The shopping throughout the city is unmatched anywhere in the region, and there are holiday decorations and lights displays to be seen everywhere you turn. Two popular spectacular drive-thru light displays can be found at Prairie Lights and the Dallas Zoo. There are also Christmas light food tours with Dallas by Chocolate, a German-themed holiday market, and Christmas-themed pop-up shops. With a slew of family-friendly festivals to attend, like the annual Holiday at the Arboretum and Enchant Christmas at Fair Park, Dallas has a lot to offer for anyone ready to get into the holiday spirit.

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Atlanta, Georgia

Southern Christmas Vacations: Atlanta Pink Pig Rides
Photo Courtesy of Rich's-Macy's

Find holiday festivities in abundance throughout December in Atlanta. In addition to historic Atlanta Christmas events, there are also events and activities which celebrate and honor Hanukkah and Kwanzaa traditions. See the Nutcracker ballet performed live at the Fox Theatre, watch the Polar Express in a special screening concert put on by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, or visit the Eatonton Missletoe Market. There's also ice skating at Centennial Olympic Park, where the rink comes with a view of the city skyline. With so many things to do in Atlanta during Christmas and the holidays, the possibilities are boundless.

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Richmond, Virginia

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

During the holidays, things are merry and bright in Richmond, a city with plenty of fun Christmas traditions, events, and appearances from none other than Santa Claus himself. King's Dominion, the local amusement park, celebrates with Winterfest, in which the theme park is transformed into a winter wonderland, including a 300-foot Christmas tree. One can't-miss location is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which puts on the exciting Dominion Energy Gardenfest of Lights throughout the season. Residential neighborhoods and storefronts also come alive with brilliant lights and holiday displays, and there are a plethora of holiday parties to attend. Richmond is the perfect place to soak up all the holiday cheer.

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Thomasville, Georgia

All Saints' Episcopal in Thomasville, GA
Robbie Caponetto

There's small-town Christmas charm aplenty in Thomasville, Georgia, where the cobblestone downtown streets are decorated for the holidays, and the locally owned shops warmly welcome visitors during the season. Journey to the past with Thomasville's annual Victorian Christmas, a two-night event with live reindeer, visits from Santa, carriage rides, and a live nativity scene. Performers, carolers, and musicians will also keep you entertained as you shop, eat, and celebrate the holiday season.

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Louisville, Kentucky

Joseph Cattoni/Getty Images

See the bright lights in Louisville during the holiday season. Twenty-five miles east of city center on U.S. 60, the Lake Forest area lights up with holiday cheer. At least 1,200 homeowners light lawns and houses beginning the first week of December. Go at dusk before the traffic turns snail-paced. If you're lucky, you might encounter a snow flurry or two while driving through the displays. Cap off a night full of holiday festivities with dinner at Christmas Morning Cafe, Louisville's Christmas-themed restaurant where it's Christmas year-round, even in the dead of a sweltering summer.

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Seaside, Florida

Seaside Post Office
Rush Jagoe

Forgo the skis, and fly south during the winter to celebrate Christmas with tradition and surprise. For a coastal Christmas, few places are as charming as Seaside, Florida, the picturesque community that gets dressed up for the holidays. Long-loved restaurants hung with garlands and lights offer up seafood and good times on 30A.

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Washington, D.C.

Christmas Tree
Richard T. Nowitz/Getty Images

For a lively Christmas celebration, Washington, D.C. is unbeatable. The nation's capital always has a big season of holiday festivities, including lights displays, ice skating, the national Christmas tree lighting, menorah lighting, and many more celebrations that mark the highlights of the season. Both the National Christmas Tree and the US Capitol Christmas Tree are magnificent displays of lights and holiday cheer. Find more festivities and sights at the likes of the National Cathedral Christmas Concerts, The District's Holiday Boat Parade, Season's Greenings at the Botanic Gardens, Christmas Carol at Ford's Theatre, and the Downtown Holiday Market where vendors gather to sell arts, crafts, jewelry, specialty items, and more. Consider this an excellent place to find one-of-a-kind gifts for your loved ones. There really is no better time to be in D.C. than the holidays.

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Bardstown, Kentucky

Bardstown, Kentucky
Robbie Caponetto

For a small-town Kentucky Christmas, set your sights on Bardstown, which is a charming small town at any time of year, but turns into a magical holiday oasis once the temperatures drop and winter begins. The town is strung with lights and filled with festivities throughout the season. Horse-drawn carriages run throughout town, whisking you through the twinkling, picturesque landscape in holiday style. There are also tree lightings, candlelight tours, and train rides. The entire town celebrates the season with Christmas 'Round Bardstown, which boasts more than 20 different activities and events throughout the holidays, beginning with the Downtown Holiday Preview and culminating with My Old Kentucky Dinner Train's New Year's Eve Excursion.

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Orlando, Florida

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom at Christmas time
Ryan Wendler/Disney

For a warmer celebration, take a Christmas vacation to the place where dreams come true, yearlong–Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is filled with holiday cheer during the season and has schedules upon schedules full of festivities, from music and ice skating to fake snow, and caroling along with all of your favorite Disney characters. Beyond Disney, athletic events, festivals, concerts, cultural events, outdoor celebrations, and even virtual experiences can all be found in Orlando. The Christmas Celebration at SeaWorld transforms the theme park into a winter wonderland brimming with holiday cheer, thrills, and over 3 million shimmering lights. Kids can meet Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or pay a visit to Santa in the Wild Arctic. And the whole family can enjoy award-winning entertainment such as Winter Wonderland on Ice, a spectacular ice-skating extravaganza. At the Universal Orlando Resort, adults and children alike can have a very Hogwarts Christmas by celebrating at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogwarts Castle, the alleys of Hogsmeade, and Diagon Alley are all lit up and come alive with festive decorations. See the Frog Choir put a holiday spin on their performances, and even enjoy a hot Butterbeer. It's like living inside the movies for the holidays.

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Natchitoches, Louisiana

Downtown Natchitoches Christmas
Robbie Caponetto

Natchitoches, Louisiana, puts on a fun holiday celebration complete with horse-drawn carriage rides and community festivities throughout the historic district, which is filled with gift shops, antique stores, and art galleries. Christmas is a big deal in this small Louisiana community. The 40-day Festival of Lights draws tourists from all over the world who come with their families to witness the over 300,000 sparkling lights and seasonal decorations on display. The Christmas Festival, which includes a boat parade, pyrotechnics, and a holiday market, is also a big draw. A road trip to experience this small riverfront town's many Christmas festivities is well worth your time.

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Grapevine, Texas

Grapevine, Texas
Courtesy Texas Tourism

Christmas can't be officially trademarked, but historic Grapevine, Texas, just north of Dallas and Fort Worth, has given it a shot. The state senate issued a proclamation more than a decade ago declaring this town the Christmas Capital of Texas. Over the holiday season, Grapevine hosts 1,400 events in just 40 days, including the biggest Christmas parade in North Texas, that features more than 100 floats. You'll see enough string lights to outshine the runway at DFW Airport. To round out your Christmas getaway, visit the town's many shops and boutiques, as well as bustling bistros and wineries, that are all in on the festive fun.

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Leesburg, Virginia

The Old Lucketts Store Owners in Leesburg, VA
Helen Norman

Given its proximity to Washington, D.C., and a busy international airport like Dulles, you'd expect Leesburg to feel like a modern suburb on the verge of sprawl, but just the opposite is true. Locals and travelers enjoy an authentic small-town experience as they stroll cobbled sidewalks of the historic district or jostle down dirt roads to an area vineyard. And at Christmastime, the whole town gets into the holiday spirit. Shop at stores decked out for the season like 27 South Interiors, Ketterman's Jewelers, and The Old Lucketts Store. You can also take part in a Holiday Tree Lighting, Holiday Fine Arts and Crafts Show, and the Christmas and Holiday Parade.

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McAdenville, North Carolina

McAdenville, North Carolina
bauhaus1000/Getty Images

Many places worldwide claim to have the best Christmas celebrations, but no holiday location is quite like McAdenville, North Carolina. Brought to the public's attention in 1980, the Charles Kuralt Morning Show featured McAdenville and the town continues to be a popular place for visitors around the holidays. Dubbed Christmastown U.S.A., the town is famous for its glittering light displays, Yule Log Parade, and tree lighting ceremony.

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Helen, Georgia

helen georgia Christmas tree
Alpine Helen-White County Convention and Visitors Bureau

If you've dreamt of visiting a Bavarian winter wonderland, this North Georgia town will give you a taste. Helen packs a lot of Christmas charm into its tiny two square miles: Think everything from a traditional Christkindlmarkt (a German holiday market) to the annual downtown parade. Because you can't miss Santa on his Bavarian sleigh, now can you?

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